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10 Steps to Recovering a Language You've Forgotten

by David DeFranza May 30, 2008
Here is a three week plan for language recovery, featuring ten easy steps that take only minutes a day.

Your language skills were pretty solid by the end of your study abroad trip a few years ago. You felt competent, and not just at the bar after a few drinks or at your favorite store, but reading the newspaper, watching television, and talking with friends, teachers, and other students.

Follow these ten steps and you’ll get that hard-earned language back in three weeks.

Learning a foreign language gave you a great feeling of accomplishment. However, since returning home, your skills have become a bit rusty.

Here’s the good news: while language requires constant practice to maintain and improve competencies, much of it is retained in our memories even if we do no work at all.

If it has been years since you blew the dust off your Spanish-English dictionary, and your correspondences with Chinese friends have long ago slipped into English, then all you need is a little review and renewed confidence.

Follow these ten steps and you’ll get that hard-earned language back in three weeks.

Week One

Assess and Plan.

The first step is to discover, perhaps to re-discover, your weaknesses with the foreign language. At this point, do not try to pick up an intermediate level textbook and start doing grammar exercises and precise translations. Instead, start with introductory materials and skim through them quickly.

How much of the vocabulary do you remember on first glance? What about after a second glance? How much of each passage can you understand?

Doing this will give you a sense of what you need to focus on first. After you have gone through some material, make a plan for yourself. Decide how much review you want to do each day and what your final goals will be.

Listen to some music or watch a movie.

Often, simply hearing the language again will help trigger knowledge that has laid dormant. It is important to get your brain thinking in the foreign language again.

Music and movies are an excellent, effortless way to do this. At this point, it is not necessary to understand all, or even most of, the words you hear. Just sit back and relax. If you can watch a foreign dvd with English subtitles (or vice versa), you’ll soak it up even faster.

Listen to Language tapes.
You will be amazed how easy it all seems and your confidence will skyrocket.

Even during the first week you should do some studying. Personally, I have never had much luck with language tapes or podcasts as a tool for learning a new language from the beginning. However, I find them extremely useful for review.

Start with some easy lessons and listen to them whenever you can. You will be amazed how easy it all seems and your confidence will skyrocket.

Week Two

Review the basics.

After a week of gently re-familiarizing yourself with the language, it is time to do some more traditional studying.

Using the plan created in the first week, go back to your textbooks and study materials and review the points identified as weaknesses. Go back through those lessons and try some exercises.

It is not necessary to spend hours a day doing this. Even fifteen to thirty minutes a day will provide a significant refresher.

Make flashcards.

As you are studying, make some flashcards for review later. A classic tool for language students, flashcards should be used during any amount of free time, from the breakfast table to the morning commute, the grocery line to the exercise bike at the gym.

If you find a stack of cards in your old study materials, resist the urge to use them. Though tedious, making the cards yourself is an important part of their effectiveness as study tools.

Find a language partner.

Nothing makes a language more satisfying than being able to use it to communicate with someone else. Even if you are not confident in your ability at this point, it is important to begin trying to communicate as soon as possible.

Good places to look for language partners include any college or university, or online. Websites like Polyglot and xLingo can help you connect online with people interested in practicing almost any language with you.

Week Three

Translate a short song or dialog from a movie.

To help solidify your review thus far, try this simple exercise: take a passage from a favorite foreign language film or song and translate it into English.

Remember the goal of this is not so much to have an English version when you are finished, but a thorough understanding of the meaning of the original.

Try to pick out some favorite words or phrases from the song, then use them in the next meeting with your language partner.

Start translating newspaper or magazine articles.

This is also a good time to start reading more. Pick up a newspaper or magazine that looks interesting and start working through the articles.

At first, read quickly and try to absorb the basic meaning. After this is comfortable, focus on troublesome vocabulary and grammar, look it up, and make it your own.

At this stage, you might cross the line between review and learning new material. This is perfectly alright.

Write a letter, email, or story.

If you haven’t already, this is a great opportunity to rekindle some old correspondences. Send an email, letter, or story to someone you once communicated with in another language.

If it has been a long time since your last contact, mention your recent review as an icebreaker.

Have a timed conversation.

When you meet with your language partner this week, try to maintain a conversation for as long as possible. Set a time goal, based on the success of last week’s meeting, before you arrive.

This is an excellent exercise, but it can be incredibly stiff and awkward if you don’t prepare a bit in advance. Don’t write out a full dialog, but be sure to have a list, be it mental or written, of related topics that can help keep the conversation moving if you slow down.

If you have made it through three weeks of review, you are well on your way to not only reclaiming, but even improving, your previously long lost language.

At this point, you can perform another self assessment, pick some new things to focus on, and continue studying, using your favorite techniques.

The best idea, however, is to take a trip and test your language in a place where it’s the local tongue, or in an ethnic neighborhood of your hometown.

Community Connection!

Don’t have a language partner? Look for one in the matador community or by posting a message at the forum.

If you’re already traveling, check out 7 Tips for Learning a Language On the Road.

Finally, be sure to check out the author’s 8 Free Online Resources for Learning a New Language.

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